Friday, February 24, 2017

Consequences of the Growing Divide Between the Ideal of the University and its Reality: Thoughts on the Unionization of Student Labor (Graduate Students and Athletes) in this Age of the Learning Factory

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2017)

There is a sort of culture war that is entering into a decisive stage within the American University. That culture war is most clearly exposed in the contrasting narratives about the character of the university. The culture war is marked by a great contest over the master narrative that defines the way in which people understand the university within our culture.

On one side stands the narrative of the traditional ideal of the university, painstakingly fashioned over the course of the last century.  It is an ideology nurtured on the notion of the university as a place where knowledge is produced and disseminated  by and under the supervision of an autonomous  professional faculty in accordance with the inherent logic of the academic disciplines within which knowledge production is organized.  Within this narrative of the ideal university, students acquire experience through supervised teaching and research under the direction of faculty. Within this narrative, individuals are seen as students (e.g., here).  On the other stands the narrative of the university as its emerging operational reality--a corporatized institution for the production of candidates for efficient insertion into global or local labor markets at the least possible expense, and one in which the university's stakeholders are increasingly understood as factors in the production of product (the employees) and funds (alumni contributions after insertion and tuition on the promise of insertion into targeted labor markets. Within this functionally framed institutional narrative, students are seen as service workers, contributing to a reduction in the cost of disseminating and producing knowledge for the market.  Within this narrative, individuals are seen as workers (e.g., here).

The conflicts between universities and their graduate students are shaped by these two quite distinct narratives. 
Caroline A. Adelman, a spokeswoman for Columbia, said that “Columbia — along with many of our peer institutions — disagrees with this outcome because we believe the academic relationship students have with faculty members and departments as part of their studies is not the same as between employer and employee.” (here).
And universities have been aggressive in seeking to quash the unionization effort (see, e.g., here). Graduate students tend to take a different view.  At Columbia they note:
“What we’re fundamentally concerned about isn’t really money,” said Paul R. Katz, one of the Columbia graduate students involved in the organizing efforts. “It’s a question of power and democracy in a space in the academy that’s increasingly corporatized, hierarchical. That’s what we’re most concerned about.” (here).
At Penn State they note something similar in recent efforts to begin the process of unionization, where the focus is on engagement and working conditions, especially those touching on benefits (see, e.g., here). At the University of Pittsburgh graduate students and faculty have moved forward in parallel efforts (see, e.g., here). The narrative focuses on the corporate model of labor exploitation in the learning factory.
Speakers at the news conference, including some individuals hoping to join the bargaining units, cited issues including fairness, job security, transparency and workplace justice as key themes of the effort. “We deserve to be recognized for our indispensable roles,” said Hillary Lazar, 37, a graduate student employee and a teaching fellow in sociology. “The University continues to profit off our labor.” (here).

Similar disjunctions in narrative have produced efforts to unionize athletics as well (see, e.g., here), in which student athletes increasingly see themselves as factors in the production of university wealth while universities seek to cling to the ideal of the student athlete-scholar (e.g., here). The tensions has produced efforts to recognize the student aspects of their role but also the nature of their contribution to the "life" of the university (see, e.g., here).

This post reflects on the inevitability of these moves and their wider ramifications for the academy.  Starting with students and athletes, it is clear that the pattern is symptomatic of a larger change in the structures and logic of the academic enterprise that will likely produce some transformative changes,.  These are considered below.

1. The university has, indeed, been transformed.  This is a global phenomenon.  In a way the ancient ideal produced substantial overcapacity.  Not everyone trained for participation at the highest levels of economic and societal organization will succeed.  Where training is focused on ensuring that the greatest number are so trained (for the best of all possible reasons--assuming that the meritocractic order works reasonably well), the result is substantial overcapacity of the over trained.  The problem, of course, s that society doesn't know who will actually succeed and who will represent the "excess."  But then, what does one do with the excess.  Cuba is a great example of a society that produced a nation exquisitely educated but incapable of producing an economically viable order.

2. The problem is exacerbated where there is status attached to occupation.  That is a problem in all societies.  Thus overcapacity occurs  for the highest status work. But most societies cannot tolerate this for long.  In the United States the effect has produced a retrenchment without debate.  That this retrenchment has been shaped n this way is lamentable and deeply disappointing for a society that also prides itself on its willingness to engage in democratic discussion.  Instead, the ideological levers of markets and job security were tugged in a way that led inexorably to the point where the university appeared to mis-serve society by adhering to the highest ideal of classical education, education for the highest level of societal sophistication.  One moves from the wide open academy--detached from its economic engine--to the university as an integral part of that machinery. That pull towards the learning factory is met with a perhaps even greater push by those that seek its benefits.  The university thrives where it is seen to be of use.  For students with no independent wealth and the need to generate income, that utility is based on the ability to leverage the university for economic advancement.  Increasingly after the middle of the last century, that meant connecting employability to education. Education thus did not acquire a new purpose--to get students jobs--rather education and the university shifted its emphasis from general education the consequence of which was assumed to be employability, to one where the university was deemed the principal instrument of employment and thus where employment was centered within the university and its mission.   

3.  That transformation is hierarchically driven.  The only universities that retain more of the old adherence to the traditional ideal are those which have been slated to serve as the incubators of the elite end of the labor market.  The nation's leaders are meant to be broadly educated to the old ideal to assume positions of leadership in industry, education, and government; its middle managers are meant to be narrowly and efficiently schooled for slotting into the appropriate part of national labor markets; and the lowest orders trained to serve the machinery of macro economic policy. The idealized university may retain something of its characteristics for national leaders, but for everyone else the learning factory model may be the baseline form through which very well targeted knowledge is disseminated.  

4.  There is no going back. The success of the university after 1945 made both the transformation and its transformative consequences inevitable. But it is important to remember that this inevitability is grounded on the fundamental characteristic of economic organization in a hierarchical fashion.  Where job status is ordered vertically then the highest status jobs will be in the highest demand by the most talented and ambitious.  Before 1945, demand could be managed by imposing a parallel system of social class on the availability of avenues to these highest status jobs and keeping the size of aggregate students small. When societal barriers fell and the universities filled with  (first) men of all social groups (and then women), and the number of students swelled, the inevitability of contradiction become unavoidable.   That contradiction provided little room for maneuver as national ideology made a return to the old barriers impossible and where the university itself began to enjoy the income from classes flush with students.  Yet the 1960s suggested the difficulties of such swelling numbers of students trained for the highest levels of participation--the old political and social structures (and control) would be threatened by swelling numbers of newcomers eager to seek their places at the highest levels.

5.  If retreat was impossible, then transformation was necessary.  The transformation features all of the various characteristics that trouble some segments of our intellectual classes fond of the old ideal and its promise of more fluid movements among social classes. First, it would be necessary to change the focus of the university from education to schooling and training (in most institutions). It was also necessary to harden hierarchies among schools to better (and more efficiently) differentiate the form of knowledge dissemination appropriate for its students.  But these changes would have to be accomplished without threatening the size of entering classes (and thus university income) and without appearing to abandon the old ideals that provided hope for upward mobility.

6.  Those changes could be attained successfully by the institution of a number of changes. Note that these were more organic than instrumental--there was no conspiracy, groups of people responding in economically rationale ways given the risks and incentives they faced.  Their decisions were guided by the master ideology within which they were trained to reason and to respond to challenges.  That ideology looked to the market, to efficiency, to direct and rational connection between inputs and outputs and to the preservation of social order and hierarchy in the valuation of outputs (the status of jobs and the reward structures based on that hierarchy) and to ensure that education remained an important marker (through the course of training necessary for each). Education--like licensing for the professions--became both a marker of training and a barrier to entry.

7.  Among the necessary markers were these:
(A) The refocusing of teaching from full time research faculty to adjunct and contract faculty with smaller expectations of knowledge production (research) and no expectation of a long term relation to the institution;  it is well known now that universities have effectively shifted the focus of hiring from tenure faculty;

(B) De-centering faculty from education--student centered teaching emphasizes the connection between education and labor markets;

(C) Retreating the traditional research and teaching functions of faculty to the graduate schools; it is now becoming more apparent that as tenure faculty and education forms change at the undergraduate level, the "ideal form" of the university is retreating to the graduate schools; to that end graduate schools are increasingly seeking to draw lines between undergraduate and graduate faculty, reserving the privileges once accorded to all faculty in knowledge production and the highest levels of teaching to a smaller group of research faculty;

(D) Shifting power over curriculum and "programs" from faculty to administrators, and eventually from administrators to risk managers; authority over curriculum is not necessarily only a function of substantive expertise, it is as much a question of student demand and responsiveness to the needs of stakeholders; the call for greater flexibility, for real time  changes to courses and programs to meet market needs and the discouragement of risk taking in knowledge production and dissemination (research must produce immediate results and education must meet student expectations) has become the standard for universities;
(E) Shifting training from contract and adjunct faculty to graduate assistant; and shifting the more routinized aspects to research to them as well; graduate assistants increasingly take on a greater burden of teaching and basic research processes; where once that formed part of training for high level academic work it increasingly serves the economic needs of the university as these students are seen more as employees; this is especially the case where there is a quid pro quo relationship ("free education" repaid through university work (research and teaching assistantships, the result transforms free to an exchange relationship).
8.  Shifting the focus of undergraduate faculty from research and teaching to teaching is difficult  where all faculty are tenured full time professionals.  It becomes easier where one can substitute lower cost contract and adjunct faculty to the task.  Here is where narrative disjunction becomes useful.  One can continue to keep demand for lower status non tenured position high by deploying the traditional ideal of the university, even as the generation of that demand effectively obliterates the ideal model and replaces it with a very different kind of place. The same applied to faculty-decentering, reconstruction of undergraduate education and the increasing use if graduate assistants as a means of reducing the costs of providing education for labor market ends.  Deployment of that  ideal is essential for the university's resistance to unionization as well.

9. The consequences are already very much in evidence.  At some universities, the Graduate School has been pulling away from undergraduate education and undergraduate education culture.  In some instances it has sought to tighten standards for admission to the ranks of graduate faculty--and in that way preserve the old standards of a research based tenure system.  But that produces two universities--an undergraduate amalgam that is designed for labor market insertions by lower waged and de-professionalized line workers, and a graduate academy adhering closer to the traditional model.  But even here there is stress--graduate education is also overproducing.  That is, there are too many PhD's chasing too few of the jobs for which they are trained.  Either graduate education is transformed, additional markets are developed ("you can do more with a PhD than just join a university") or it too will succumb to the inevitability of markets based  transformation (in this case mostly by shrinking).

10.  Most important, that graduate-undergraduate divide masks another and more important dis junction--the increasing separation between knowledge production and knowledge dissemination.  While knowledge production retains its professional aura, knowledge dissemination has been reduced from a trade to a job for which no particularity mastery of the field is necessary. The ideal narrative is based on the notion that those who produce knowledge then disseminate it to their students--that is the inherent value of higher education, the connection between the production and distribution not just of rote knowledge, but of the most advanced knowledge.  Students under the ideal narrative might be willing to pay their tuition because they were acquiring that sort of connection and could be assured of the quality of the knowledge to which they were exposed.  But where the university serves as schooling or training, the value added of this connection shrinks--and in the case of training shrinks to insignificance.  If that is the case the university overpays traditional tenured faculty for jobs that could be undertaken by lower cost workers.  And once the university discovered that students were more or less indifferent (contract primarily teaching faculty to traditional tenured faculty) then it was an easy matter to begin to substitute higher priced factors in production (of training) for lower priced substitutes.  

11. For graduate students the consequences are deeply felt.  The ideal master narrative centers them on their status as students undergoing the rigorous training in their respective disciplines at the hands of those master teachers whose mastery is evidenced by their importance in the production of the knowledge they disseminate.The emerging narrative situates them as workers who in return for their labor are also permitted to acquire an education leading to an advanced degree. In both cases they are student-workers.  The difference is in the emphasis.  In many universities, the value of graduate students increasingly is as a short term solution to teaching needs that vary over time and that require a work force that can be flexibly increased or decreased in short order without impairing institutional reputations.For athletes a similar effect--they are students but also essential in the production of entertainment, publicity, fund raising for the university.  In this sense their economic value to the university may well exceed their contribution in other respects. This certainly is the case int he aggregate.  Individually, each athlete can be treated as student and as a worker in the sports entertainment industry for the enrichment of the institution (and of course for their own value in moving into the professional sports field of labor). But it is altogether too easy to conflate the two in ways that marginalize the student portion--everything form conditioning scholarships to eligibility to the way in which athletic schedules tend to temper  student obligation. Yet for student athletes the concern is more directly exploitative--the university tends to capture all of the value added of the athletic contribution fo the student without sharing any of it, even as the student risks future earnings after graduation by performing at the undergraduate level.  As an aside the effect is similar to that altogether too common when an employer captures all productivity gains of employees without passing some of the added wealth to those who produced it.

12.  In these contexts, unionization seems inevitable--inevitable for the graduate student seeking to protect the integrity of her study objectives against exploitation; for the adjunct and contract faculty member to compensate for the more precarious working conditions without tenure protection in markets where they are more fungible commodities; for the student athlete to reduce exploitation and capture some of the value they contribute to university profitability.  That these efforts have neither come sooner nor been more aggressively pursued speaks to the extraordinary power of the idealized master narrative of the university that reality now exposes as increasingly a function of a nostalgia for a different time and a goal that was realistically unattainable in a society that prizes labor market hierarchy and status.

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